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Corporations finally getting hands on Vista

Mar 06, 20067 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsMicrosoft

Now that the first corporate beta of Windows Vista is out, users can test for themselves whether the next version of Microsoft’s client operating system will make their networks more secure and manageable.

Now that the first corporate beta of Windows Vista is out, users can test for themselves whether the next version of Microsoft’s client operating system will make their networks more secure and manageable (See reviewer Tom Henderson’s first look at Vista).

Some don’t plan to take a long initial look, because Vista doesn’t mesh with their upgrade cycle. Others plan to explore not only the benefits in the core operating system but also what it provides when coupled with other software also slated to ship by year-end, most notably Office 12.

The Vista beta shipped in late February, the fourth iteration in Microsoft’s Community Technology Preview program begun last September. It is the first version targeted at corporate users.

Bill Gates, Microsoft’s chief software architect, emphasized again last month that Vista will be the most secure Windows operating system ever even though the company isn’t including native anti-virus features.

In addition, when the February beta was released, Microsoft detailed a suite of deployment and management tools designed to dramatically ease large rollouts and ongoing administration of the operating system.

“This [beta release] is Microsoft dropping anchor,” says Tom Henderson, principal researcher for ExtremeLabs and a member of the Network World Lab Alliance. “The rest is polishing, getting the bugs out, testing compatibility and goading people into writing more drivers. This also teaches the OEMs what’s going to be in there.”

What is in there?

Vista’s path to this point has been a long haul. The software, originally code-named Longhorn, was first expected to ship in 2003. Now it is slated to ship by the end of 2006 and represents the first release of a client operating system from Microsoft since XP, in December 2001.

As Vista lagged in development, a number of high-profile features were cut to save the operating system from slipping beyond 2006, most notably WinFS, a universal file system that Gates has dreamed about for more than a decade.

The other two major pillars of the original Longhorn, presentation and Web services connectivity, are expected to ship with Vista but are also being made available for Windows XP and Windows Server 2003.

With the dust now settled, security and deployment have taken center stage.

Vista security features are highlighted by User Account Control, which will provide IT with more ways to control users’ desktop privileges. Microsoft says that more than 80% of users run in Administrative Mode, which gives them and any malicious code complete control over the desktop.

Also key is Internet Explorer Protected Mode, which prevents IE from doing things it shouldn’t, such as silently installing code from malicious Web sites. Other security features are Windows Defender, an anti-spyware tool; Windows Service Hardening, which sets limits on what tasks operating system services can execute; and new tools to thwart phishing attacks. Vista also represents the first implementation of Microsoft’s InfoCard identity technology and a firewall makeover to include both inbound and outbound filtering.

Some question whether all this will be enough to attract users.

“I have heard this security promise before,” says James Tieri, director of information technology for Holland Co., a manufacturer of railway welding and maintenance equipment in Crete, Ill. But he says the major sticking point for him is volume licensing. Tieri rejected Microsoft’s controversial new licensing program in 2001 and now must buy all new licenses to upgrade.

“It will cost me a fortune, and I don’t have any compelling reason to upgrade,” he says. “Our network is stable and our virus threats are under control. We are very good at administering what we have.”

Ken Winell, president of Econium, a developer and systems integrator, is looking at Vista coupled with Office 12 features for use internally and for a number of customers.

“I can’t get excited about Vista alone, but I’m using Vista and complementary stuff from Office 12 to look at how collaboration may evolve in the next two to three years. What would the desktop of the future look like, and how can I take that out to mobile devices?”

Another major issue is deployment.

Microsoft admits that large companies can spend more than $1,000 per desktop to roll out a new operating system. Microsoft wants to get that under $100.

To hit that target, the February beta includes the first complete set of new deployment and management tools for building and managing Vista images, the configurations users create and store to ensure consistency during deployment.

“Deployment is a really jarring traumatic task for network admins,” says Henderson of ExtremeLabs. “This is a real stickler in terms of getting direction specifically from Microsoft on how to do this and cut down on the [deployment] soap opera.”

Microsoft’s answers are in its Windows Automated Installation Kit (WAIK), a collection of deployment tools. The kit, released alongside Vista, includes System Image Manager and Windows Deployment Services. Together, the tools let users create and edit operating system images and deploy them to desktops using the new Windows Imaging Files. WAIK includes Windows Preinstallation Environment 2.0, a tool for aiding in final deployment of the operating system.

Microsoft has added Business Desktop Deployment, which is best-practices guidance, and in April plans to add the Application Compatibility Toolkit 5.0.

Upgraded deployment tools for Vista include the User State Migration Tool 3.0, which features full encryption capabilities and unattended install, Microsoft Management Console 3.0, Group Policy settings, and event and logging features.

“If we do really well this time around [with Vista tools], then the next time people don’t blink about deployment,” says Manu Namboodiri, senior product manager in the Windows Client division.

Microsoft’s expectations

Microsoft expects 200 million new PCs to ship loaded with Vista in the first 24 months after release, Michael Sievert, corporate vice president of Windows product management and marketing, said at the Merrill Lynch IT Services & Software Conference in early February. Sievert said that number was 67 million for Windows 95.

And while many of those machines will go to consumers, Microsoft thinks corporate users will be enticed by the security, deployment and mobility enhancements, along with features such as Sleep, which allows for quick system recovery, and centrally controlled power-management features. The February beta is expected to reach 500,000 testers.

The company, which has not announced hardware specifications for Vista, said the operating system will run on the majority of machines using XP today.

But there are plenty of other questions left for corporate users to ponder as they consider Vista – over pricing, volume licensing and versioning. The first two are not expected to be answered for months, but last week Microsoft said Vista will come in six versions.

The company’s plans call for two corporate versions, Vista Business and Vista Enterprise. The enterprise version is available only to volume licensing customers with Software Assurance maintenance contracts and will include all the business-version features plus Virtual PC Express and the new BitLocker full-volume encryption.

“No matter how good the tools are a fair number of customers are going to hold off on adoption, because the typical customer behavior is that they do not adopt these products immediately,” says Al Gillen, an analyst with IDC.

With Vista, Microsoft hopes to change that historic behavior.

Corporate Vista Microsoft will make six versions of Vista available, with two focused on corporate users.
Vista Business
The version designed to have something for everyone from small to large businesses. It will include the Aero desktop and its transparent Windows, a full desktop search capability and new file organization features. Also included will be Windows Tablet PC technology with built-in handwriting recognition via input from a digital pen or fingertip instead of a keyboard.
Vista Enterprise
This version will be available only to those with Software Assurance maintenance contracts. It will include everything in the Business version, plus features such as BitLocker Drive Encryption so users can secure sensitive data in the event computers are lost or stolen. It also will ship with Virtual PC Express, which will let users run older applications designed for previous Windows operating systems, and a subsystem that will allow Unix applications to run on Vista.